How to Overcome Shyness

Hate mingling? Dread public speaking? Help is here! Try these confidence-boosting strategies.

Photo by Emiliano Ponzi

Hi. My name is Sarah, and I’m a reporter, so you wouldn’t think that I would hesitate at all talking to people at parties. But I’m shy, too. And I have been since I was a kid.

Genes may have something to do with my shyness. People with different genotypes on average tend to have different levels of social anxiety, says Scott F. Stoltenberg, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, who has conducted recent research on the topic. But environmental factors count more: We take cues from our parents. We suffer if we’re bullied. Even the bold can become shy when faced with certain challenges, like a job loss or a rejection, says Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, in New York City. Half the people in the United States say that they’re shy to some degree, according to Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at Stanford University and a pioneer in research on shyness. He and other experts think of sociability along a spectrum, with one end being, essentially, “I live for parties” and the other, “Leave me alone—forever.” (See 3 Treatments to Help the Severely Shy.) I fall somewhere in between.

There are worse things in life, of course, but I would love never having to feel awkward in social situations again. Plus, it has always been a little too easy for me to talk myself into staying home instead of going out. Experts say that every time a shy person avoids a social event, her anxiety may grow, and it won’t be any easier to feel confident the next time around. “People think that social confidence is just something people have,” says Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the director of the Shyness Institute, in Berkeley, California. “But it’s something you build by repeatedly putting yourself in social situations.”

That’s why I decided to put myself through a self-designed boot camp. For four weeks, I read self-help books and was coached by the foremost experts on shyness. Then I took their advice to get-togethers, the running path, and even the stage. The challenge proved to be just that—a challenge. But it also worked, as it may for those of you who are shy and willing to try your own version of the program. Here's what I learned.

Lesson No.1: Every Sentence Coming Out of Your Mouth Isn’t Going to Make Sense; Accept It

“Many shy, socially anxious people report the fear of being unable to make a desired impression on others,” says Barry Schlenker, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, who has done extensive research on social anxiety. Shy people often appear to others as socially competent, but for whatever reason (unrealistic personal standards, a lack of confidence), they can’t see it themselves. Shy people also tend to believe that when they inevitably fail to come across well, they’ll suffer unpleasant consequences, including shame, because of it. It’s no wonder, then, that they tend to clam up in large gatherings. Instead, says Henderson, they should try to “bumble freely,” to realize that it’s okay to lose their train of thought or forget a person’s name. While there’s no magic switch to change the way you view your social interactions, you can make a conscious effort to talk more often and to deliberately edit your self-judgments afterward. Pretend to be your best friend. When you’re being hard on yourself, ask, “What would she say to me?”

Lesson in action: To practice speaking spontaneously, I enroll in a class at the Peoples Improv Theater, in New York City. Improv helps, say experts, because it calls for a zero-tolerance policy for perfectionism. The scenes move so quickly that mistakes are inevitable, even for the most experienced performers. Plus, says Tom Yorton, the CEO of Second City Communications, a company that uses improv to build communication skills in corporate employees, participants “focus less on judging themselves and more on creating a connection with others.”

At first, every new exercise makes me nervous, and about half the scenes that I’m in are total busts, filled with awkward pauses and topics that fizzle. One in particular, about a trip to the beach, ends with a lame “Well, it was good to see you.” Later I catch myself fixating on failures. But rather than wallowing, I remember that messing up is no big deal, and that everyone else did it, too. By the third week, I feel more relaxed and realize that the more mistakes I make—and I make a lot—the less each one seems to matter.